WPI Problem-Solving Hits the Mark at NEIA

Solving problems through creativity and collaboration is core to the NEIA experience. As we design a curriculum for and by students, the perfect opportunity to collaborate with Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) presented itself very early on and led to a dynamic learning opportunity for NEIA’s youngest innovators.

PIN Points

  • The WPI experience comes to NEIA in the form of an interactive qualifying project conducted by 4 students to inform the grade 6 curriculum.

  • Working through an open-ended project builds teamwork and prepares students for what’s next.

  • The WPI team delivers a project-based learning lab with topics on ecology, biodiversity, and understanding the natural world.

  • Students share advice for future NEIA innovators.

Making a Difference

Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s signature project-based curriculum, the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), is one of the most distinctive elements of the WPI Plan. The experience ensures that every WPI student has the opportunity to work on an interdisciplinary team to solve a problem or need that lies at the intersection of science and society.

Unlike an academic course, the IQP involves students working in teams, with students not in their major, to tackle an issue that relates science, engineering, and technology to society. Sustainability serves as a common theme for IQPs, many of which address problems related to energy, environment, sustainable development, education, cultural preservation, and technology policy.

“The WPI IQPs serve many purposes and were designed as such. We seek to allow the students leeway in the paths they wish to link theory and practice. As advisors, we may provide general guidance, but students need to plan the project and execute it,” said Professor Joseph Sarkis, Foisie Business School, WPI.  “They should be able to apply some of the knowledge they have gathered and build on it. NEIA provided a very different learning experience, using and building their knowledge and very importantly, process.”

NEIA’s Head of School Tom Woelper connected with the WPI faculty to introduce a project to support NEIA. The opening brief shared NEIA’s goal to open a new global school with a future-focused curriculum, human-centered design, and real-world inclusion.

“We were delighted to have an opportunity to work with WPI students, who are already engaged in a project-based learning experience, to help inform NEIA’s curriculum and hands-on learning opportunities,” said Tom.

Uncertainty Delivers A Unique Opportunity

Through the IQP course, WPI students are provided a list of project sponsors and narrow down their choice by reviewing high-level summaries from each sponsor. Josh Alasso, Winnie Ly, Maggie Reiter, and Zach Stone, all juniors at WPI, teamed up remotely and worked through their initial uncertainty about the project together. They quickly narrowed down their choices and selected NEIA as a sponsor as they were excited to play a role in defining the school experience for future students.

After selecting a project sponsor, it was time to dig in and identify a particular project that might aid the school and provide unique learning opportunities to the team.

“The opportunity is so open-ended and the uncertainty is difficult to navigate at times,” said Maggie. “We learned early on that as a team we communicate well and can express our ideas respectfully. No matter what we might disagree on, we knew we could work through it.”

The advice from their faculty advisor helped set them on the right course with a project timeline and self-imposed deadlines. The team set meetings with NEIA staff to explore different project ideas.

“It was challenging given the nature of the project. I wanted someone to just tell us this is your project, now go do it,” Josh Alasso. “Once we identified the problem and knew it was something we were super passionate about the next steps came together quickly due to our WPI education.”

As the team learned about NEIA’s central focus on human-centered design, they thought to apply the methodology to design a curriculum plan for the incoming grade 6 students that would explore the concept of sustainability and the impact individuals have on the world. The team set out to create a project-based learning lab with topics on ecology, biodiversity, understanding the natural world, and invite students to gather and evaluate data to measure the campus’s environmental impact.

NEIA’s Outdoor Classroom and Howe Pond Land

Howe Pond Land is a 15-acre conservation property owned by the city of Marlborough that borders the school. The land provides a remarkable opportunity for students to learn about ecology first-hand right in the school’s backyard. Additionally, the NEIA campus is expansive with 26-acres of land to explore and a building that will incorporate the natural world. The opportunity for outdoor hands-on learning is available and this project set a clear direction for a range of activities and learning experiences.

The WPI team set out to inform their curriculum development through a series of candid interviews of students and faculty at current private and public schools, focus groups, and research gathered from case studies. The goal was to design an immersive, real-world learning experience for students in grade 6.

“Providing students with a clear connection to the natural world at a young age builds their appreciation for the outdoors and encourages them to become future stewards of the environment,” said R. Allen Babcock, Dean of Community Life at NEIA.

The WPI team delivered 5 key research findings, which the team incorporated into their curriculum design, namely:

  • Outdoor education enhances learning by reducing stress and providing active learning opportunities
  • Grading systems must be updated to include mastery of skill, portfolios to track progress over time, or student/teacher discussion
  • Interdisciplinary learning is more applicable to the real world
  • Campus ownership can be developed through personal responsibility
  • Community building supports a better learning environment

Considering these key findings, the WPI team presented NEIA with a curriculum map, an activities calendar and master plan, and an easy-to-follow guide to all activities ranked based on NEIA’s own categories.

“I enjoy spending time outdoors, visiting state parks, and I saw this as a unique opportunity to encourage future generations to learn about the environment and preserve it,” said Maggie.

The opportunity to create meaningful real-world learning opportunities through activities to learn about ecology, biodiversity, the natural world, and evaluate data to measure the campus’s environmental impact will be incredibly impactful to future students at NEIA.

What’s Next?

The WPI team reflected on the outcome of their work and enjoyed the opportunity to inform the future of NEIA’s curriculum.

“I’m hopeful that giving kids the opportunity to do hands-on work and experience the connection to the outdoors at a younger age will give them a greater appreciation for the environment,” said Josh.

“WPI has great students with wonderful capabilities and an eagerness to learn and make a difference in our world. This IQP offered these opportunities,” added Professor Sarkis. “I believe, given the current pandemic and challenges, that the project and outcome greatly exceeded my expectations. All the credit for this success goes to the students and sponsors. We hope that there may be more opportunities for WPI, students and faculty, and NEIA to build on this initial project and relationship.”

NEIA will utilize the research findings and engage new faculty in the work this summer to complete the grade 6 curriculum and plan for the school year ahead. NEIA will continue to engage with the WPI team on future sponsored projects to build the ethos of the school and establish community partnerships.

“Josh, Maggie, Winnie, and Zach provided a great deal of material for future faculty members to use as soon as they arrive on campus this July,” said R. Allen Babock, Dean of Community Life. “We’re excited to put their research to work and look forward to offering students a number of ways to engage with nature and the outdoors while at NEIA.”

What would you whisper to your 15-year old self?

As a closing thought, we asked Josh, Maggie, Winnie, and Zach what advice they might have for future NEIA innovators by asking them what would whisper in the ear of their 15-year-old self looking back now.

“Don’t pursue something just because you’re good at it. Put in the work and devote time to the things you’re passionate about.” — Zach

“Explore different opportunities and find things you’re passionate about. Get started at a young age.” — Winnie

“Try not to stress over grades. Give more thought to what you’re learning and why you’re learning it.” — Josh

“Things will turn out fine. College is awesome.” — Maggie


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Yesterday, our mini inventors went to the Boston Museum of Science to see real life inventions and creations. They dove into design processes to ultimately guide them in their creation of a product which they will be presenting tomorrow!

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This week our mini inventors will be focusing on coding and prototyping. Yesterday, students prototyped a lamp, and today, they did the same with a sound machine. Students then used human-centered design to understand how to improve the product for the user by interviewing classmates and staff. Friday, students will present to their classmates, staff, and families their chosen projects starting from their beginning sketches to their prototype to the final product.

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